"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 11 December 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Blame Steven


Last month, The New Yorker asked the world: "Where is Godard?", and ran an interview with "the filmmaker in exile" as an answer. Apparently, Jean-Luc Godard is holed up in Rolle, Switzerland. At 70, the most dynamic voice of the 60s French New Wave and director of Breathless, Alphaville, Contempt, and Weekend is a grumpy semi-retiree who pads about in Nike sweatshirts, rails at the ignorance of French youth while munching coffee shop pastry, and can barely find the cash to make a low budget film. And why? Well, as The New Yorker tells us, it's Steven Spielberg's fault.

Accepting Godard's career headaches as those of the prickly, uncategorizable, often incomprehensible artist that he is — that's too easy. The magazine tells us, "[A]fter the financial success of Jaws and George Lucas's Star Wars, Hollywood was gearing its movies toward the adolescent raised on TV, [an audience that] didn't demand a knowledge of Delacroix or Beethoven to be appreciated." As cinematic history, this rings a little false. Godard never had a big audience. And when did American movie fans ever have a working appreciation of Delacroix? Godard himself claims his 1960 Breathless remains his one commercial hit. Moreover, according to this theory, the forward-looking director must have seen the shark in the water pretty early. Fed up with hyper-capitalist popular culture, Godard retired from commercial filmmaking in 1968, some seven years before the premiere of Jaws.

Blame Steven — it's one of the central movie myths of our time. As espoused in Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and by embittered filmmakers everywhere, Blaming Steven is an historical shorthand that sounds like this: From 1967-1980, Hollywood saw a golden age of film that produced Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, MASH, Harold and Maude, The Godfather, Chinatown, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and many others on up to Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull. Hollywood was an Eden of outsized artistic success until the serpent, or rather, shark, courtesy of the über boomer himself, entered the garden. This was quickly followed by Lucas and his space operas, and the two money lenders chased the priests from the temple. Movies have blown ever since. "It was like when McDonald's got a foothold," says The Exorcist's director, William Friedkin, "the taste for good food just disappeared. We entered a period of devolution. Everything has gone backward toward a big sucking hole."

Paradise Lost 1975, a theory that rests on the idea that Spielberg and the popcorn movie simply appeared. But, aren't we forgetting a few classics: The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, Gator, North Dallas Forty, Magnum Force, Herbie, Love The Bug, Billy Jack, Walking Tall, Death Wish, Burt Reynolds's whole career (ok, Deliverance not included), and art house sleepers like The Sting, The Way We Were, and Love Story? And how about Chuck Heston's run from Planet of the Apes through Earthquake? Top that, Mr. Beatty! But then along came Spielberg and Ruined It All. You can just see Heston, Irwin Allen, and Ali McGraw sitting shiva for the movies at Le Dome, with Heston turning to the assembled industry suits doing lunch behind him and roaring: "Damn you all to hell!"

A golden age, that's how it looks now ... but those in Eden at the time saw it a little differently. In her 1973 essay "In Hollywood," Joan Didion writes: "True, the casino is not so wide open as it was in '69 when every studio in town was narcotized by Easy Rider's grosses and all that was needed to get a picture off the ground was the suggestion of a $750,000 budget, a low-cost NABET or even a nonunion crew, and this terrific 22-year old kid director." The golden age had begun! Paradise Found! But Didion, a Hollywood pro of over three decades, was also there for the Fall — a whole six months later. "As it turned out," she wrote in that same piece, "most of these pictures were shot as usual by IATSE rather than NABET crews and they cost as usual not seven-fifty but a million two and many of them ended up unreleased, shelved. And so there was one very bad summer there, the hangover summer of 1970, when nobody could get past the gate without a commitment from Barbra Streisand."

Streisand?!? What was she doing in cinema paradiso? She barely rates in Biskind's book except to illustrate the comic misery of What's Up, Doc?. Yep, five years before Jaws, studios sought the same formulas they always did and still do: big stars, old genres, low budgets. The Godfather, Little Big Man, Chinatown, Shampoo, MASH, Mean Streets — all this was business as usual met by a generation of new talent with new ideas and a willingness to use that system.

In the post-Spielberg world it's often said of movies like Taxi Driver, "They'd never make that today." Really? Consider the deal from the studio's point of view, 1975: Robert De Niro, hot from an Oscar-winning performance in The Godfather II (an easy $150 million hit in today's dollars), wants to make another crime film, this one an ultra low-budget cheapie with a highly acclaimed director and a young, A-list screenwriter — and most everyone works for scale. If Brad Pitt did the same today — after grabbing an Oscar in a $150 million film — isn't it conceivable that he might be able to swing that deal? "They" never did want to make it until De Niro, the movie star, did.

The difference today isn't Spielberg, Lucas or some imaginary art house movie studio. The "golden age," except for a brief period, existed well within the bounds of the usual LA movie business. And if Spielberg ruined everything, how do we explain the American indie film boom of the '80s and '90s that gave us Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, The Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, and Paul Thomas Anderson? What "golden age" film ranks with Magnolia for pure exploration of narrative style? Or Blue Velvet? Could any studio rationale justify the radical satire of Soderbergh's Schizopolis? If anything, hasn't the American film market become a better place for a talent like Godard? Did he really have it so easy in the mid-'60s, selling his Bande à part against Goldfinger or Lawrence of Arabia?

And those are just the indie success stories. If it makes sense to Blame Steven for all the bad Hollywood movies, who do we blame for all the bad indie movies? The prime candidate has to be John Cassavettes, the original indie hero. Blame John for all those half-written, dullish, persistence-over-talent $7,000 Sundance debuts. Blame John for inspiring hundreds of half-wits who assume writing and directing are the same thing. Blame John for all those who idolize Quentin, Blame Steven, and never heard of Ford, Welles, or Godard. Well, you could, but it makes no more sense than to Blame Steven. Even Godard doesn't do that.

No, Jean-Luc Godard isn't angry about Steven Spielberg's success (well, not entirely). But he is angry. Specifically, Godard fumes over how Spielberg uses his sway with audiences to promote himself as an historical authority on epic events in Europe (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan) — epic events that Godard himself lived through. Godard's upcoming film, now in post-production, is In Praise of Love, a contemporary drama about an elderly couple who fought for the French Resistance during World War II and have received an offer from none other than Steven Spielberg for the rights to their life story. The film reveals the family conflict the offer creates, reflecting current anger over American cultural dominance in France.

Ironically, Spielberg is the one man who got Godard off his butt to make a movie again. Sounding like the auteur of old, Godard declined an honorific Old Filmmaker Award from the New York Film Critics Circle a few years ago, as The New Yorker tells us: "declaring himself unworthy of the honor because of his failure to accomplish several things — foremost, 'to prevent Mr. Spielberg from reconstructing Auschwitz.'"

If Godard is finally back, shouldn't we thank Spielberg?


courtesy of Bertolt Blecht


pictures Terry Colon

Bertolt Blecht